WASHINGTON (November 14, 2001) -- In the face of daunting challenges like armed conflict, grinding poverty, and the spread of deadly disease, the nation's Catholic bishops today called for hope and greater solidarity with the Church and the peoples of Africa.
Members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting here in their semi-annual general assembly, today unanimously approved a broad statement titled A Call to Solidarity With Africa.
"We write in hope, recognizing the history, strength, spirituality, courage, and capacity of the Church and peoples of Africa," the statement begins. "We write with concern, witnessing the proliferation of armed conflict, a deterioration in health care and education infrastructures, the weakening of social and community structures, and an increasing spread of disease and other threats to the lives of our African brothers and sisters. Our concern is that Africa's hope and future could be destroyed by indifference and inaction in Africa and around the world."
The United States government, in particular, is singled out for strong words, saying that "our nation's lack of serious attention to the needs of Africa is a scandal." Instead, they call on the U.S. government, and all citizens, to a greater level of concern and engagement on behalf of Africa.
"As Americans, we acknowledge the singular position enjoyed by the United States as one of the wealthiest nations on earth, but privilege cannot be divorced from responsibility," thebishops state. "We cannot satisfy our moral obligations to the world's poor by allowing only a
few crumbs from the table of material abundance to fall upon the nations and peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. We are called to a much greater commitment of resources and energy."
In particular, the statement enumerates five areas in which the bishops urge the United States and the international community to become more actively engaged: poverty, debt, and development; health care; education; trade; peacemaking.
Poverty, debt and development
Nearly 300 million Africans -- approximately the population of the United States -- live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1 a day. In many African countries, the crushing burden of debt repayment consumes as much as one-quarter of government revenues, shifting limited resources away from critical needs like education and health care. Meanwhile, U.S. development assistance, as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), ranks lowest among developed nations. The bishops call for an additional $1 billion in foreign assistance for sub-Saharan African poverty reduction, as well as a reorientation of U.S. foreign aid policy, in general, to focus on poverty eradication. Intensified efforts to reduce the foreign debt of African countries must also continue.
The United States and the international community must provide urgent assistance for strengthening health care, including greater access to medicines for the people of Africa. At least $5 billion is needed to begin to address seriously the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The bishops call for "increased funding for medicines and treatment, research, basic healthcare delivery systems, and care for those living with HIV/AIDS, as well as appropriate educational programs that provide accurate information about the transmission of the disease and promote responsible sexual behavior."
The ranks of teachers in Africa have been decimated by conflict, disease and other factors, and children have been forced to abandon their studies to assume adult roles such as parents and soldiers. "The Church in the United States, and the U.S. government, should energetically support the efforts of the Church and other groups in civil society, and governments in Africa in promoting universal access to quality education."
"The moral measure of the U.S. trade relationship with Africa is whether it helps reduce poverty among Africa's poorest peoples," according to the bishops. They call for a just trading system, including the reduction of trade barriers and high tariffs, effective labor and environmental rights standards, and the negotiation and implementation of trade agreements that protect the rights and dignity of all parties.
The United States, together with multinational corporations and the entire international community, are called by the bishops to play an essential, constructive role eliminating sources of conflict and building peace in Africa. "While most of Africa is at peace, some of the world's deadliest conflicts continue to rage on the continent," the bishops write. Particularly distressing, according to the statement, is the manipulation of ethnic and cultural identity as a source of deadly conflict, such as the 18-year war in Sudan which has resulted in 2 million dead and twice as many displaced. Similarly, "the relationship between natural resources and conflict in Africa is becoming clearer," with diamonds and oil gaining specific mention.
The bishops acknowledge that the principle responsibility for resolving the crises in Africa rests with Africans themselves. They were critical, however, of the lack of serious U.S.
engagement on the continent and urged that the United States play a more central role. "While genocide in the Balkans attracts a serious U.S. response, Rwandan genocide did not. Conflict in Northern Ireland commands significant U.S. attention, but not war and persecution in Sudan."
Additionally, they urged "much more robust financial, logistical, and political support [by the United States] for the U.N. and regional African peacekeeping efforts." They also call for the United States to sign the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and to support controls on arms transfers, especially "small arms that continue to fuel, expand, and prolong conflict in Africa."
The bishops also addressed "governments, international financial institutions, and private corporations involved in the exploration, development, production, and sales of natural resources" and urged them to adopt codes of conduct which would ensure that their development of Africa's natural resources do not contribute to corruption, conflict, and repression.
Refugees and displaced persons
Refugees and displaced persons are "a disturbing byproduct" of the conflict and insecurity widespread across Africa. Africa hosts more than 3.5 million refugees -- nearly 30 percent of the world's total -- and approximately 50 percent of the world's 25 million internally displaced persons. "The world can no longer ignore the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons in Africa," according to the bishops. The United States in particular should increase its refugee admissions "to levels proportional to the gravity and magnitude of the African refugee crisis," and take a leadership role in protecting internally displaced persons by ensuring they receive adequate aid and that governments involved in armed conflict do not target internally displaced populations.
In the face of the many challenges mentioned by the statement, the bishops remain hopeful.
"Africa is not a continent of despair," they state. "It is rather a place of people who are struggling to overcome past problems and current challenges in order to build a future full of hope and opportunity."
They point out that an important source of hope in Africa is the Catholic Church, whose history is as old as the Church itself and which is growing rapidly. Today, 350 million Christians, including 116 million Catholics live in Africa.
Throughout Africa, the Catholic Church is playing a prominent role in providing health care services, addressing human rights concerns, distributing humanitarian aid, pursuing responses to the spread of contagious diseases, and working to assist with political reform and reconciliation.
Through the work of the bishops' International Policy and Migration Committees and Catholic Relief Services, the bishops' overseas aid and development agency, the Church in the United States stands in solidarity with the Church and the peoples of Africa. "The critical challenges and enormous potential facing Africa today serve as the opportunity for -- and test of -- our mutual solidarity," according to the Bishops.
Echoing the words of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Bernard Law, Chairman of the International Policy Committee said, "The 'hour of Africa' has come. Now is the time for the Catholic Church in the United States to deepen its commitment to our brothers and sisters in Africa. In so doing, we seek to embrace not only their hopes and dreams, but also their sufferings and thirst for justice, integral development, and lasting peace."